Food & Drink

Review: Sailor Oyster Bar is Back and Better Than Ever in Annapolis

Two years after a fire shuttered the beloved West Street watering hole, it has officially returned with a nimble menu that manages to be posh, playful, and a little punk all at once.
Executive chef Lorenza Aznar with a round of oysters. —Photography by Scott Suchman

When a fire broke out two years ago at the Sailor Oyster Bar in downtown Annapolis, engulfing the beloved watering hole and its circa-1897 building in flames, a mantra of sorts emerged among the owners, staff, and their loyal local following: “Don’t give up the ship.”

And now, walking through the doors at 196 West Street, which reopened in February, it’s clear that those five simple words were lived by. In all those months in between, from the central raw bar packed to the gills with fresh seafood to the vintage Playboys once again plastered across the bathroom walls, SOB—their tongue-in-cheek acronym—has not missed a beat.

“We’re so grateful to be back,” says Scott Herbst, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Gabrielle. “We want to thank everyone for their support, in the past, and now—and hopefully into the future.”

It’s an allegiance formed in part because, since their first service in 2016, Sailor has been decidedly different than the other dining establishments in Maryland’s state capital, catering to all the politicians, preps, and tourists though those folks are welcome here, too.

For starters, then and now, there’s the industrial-chic-meets-salty-dog aesthetic, drawing cool kids and creative types to its A. Aubrey Bodine photographs, Navy memorabilia, and brothel posters beneath exposed beams and warehouse lights.

And then, of course, there’s the fact of no conventional kitchen, with staff relying on little more than a blowtorch, toaster, and sous vide. Yet that’s been anything but a limiting approach; the nimble menu manages to be posh, playful, and a little punk all at once.

See for yourself at the dining-side bar—the best seat in the house beside the front bay windows—where executive chef Lorenza Aznar works her magic. Each plating is a flurry of flavors. A drop of chile oil here. A dash of miso there. The raw, cured, and seasonal specials are always our go-tos, like the hamachi crudo we ate this spring. In an unexpected contrast, its hyper-fresh, finely filleted fish came swimming in a smokey carrot-habanero hot sauce. On top, a tangle of shiso and mizuna provided the perfect texture and touch.

But old favorites are not to be overlooked, either. Indeed, there are oysters—plenty of  oysters, all ice-cold and on display as soon as you walk in—including several from the Chesapeake Bay. And the pantry-staple-turned-trendy snack that is tinned fish is a hat tip to the old-school meals that fed the city’s once-bustling working waterfront (and Sailor might have been the first restaurant in the region to feature it). We still have a soft spot for the boquerón toast, too—an umami bomb of aged white anchovies, salted honey butter, shaved fresno chile, and a pinch of cocoa.

Go ahead, indulge in the caviar and truffle, which can be well-paired with a glass from the dedicated “le bubs” list. But always start with an expertly crafted house cocktail—like the mezcal-forward, blood orange-rich Chupa Sangre—that could tempt even the best-behaved midshipmen.

Past patrons will recognize much of the tightknit, often-tattooed staff from dinners of yore, and despite extensive renovations, the space itself feels uncannily akin to the old SOB, too—like a bar that’s always been here, and hopefully always will be. Which is clearly how the community feels, donating more than $100,000 to help rebuild.

And that mantra that got everyone through the fire? It remains as relevant as ever.

“It’s a daily reminder, even working through a shift together,” says Herbst. “It takes a team.”

The Scoop

SAILOR OYSTER BAR: 196 West St., Annapolis. HOURS: Tues.- Sun. 4 p.m.-12 a.m. PRICES: Starters: $5-22; raw bar: $1-170; mains: $12-34; desserts: $10-15.